Monday, July 13, 2009

Harlem's Hungry Kids, NYC 2009

Part One: New York City's Free Summer Lunch Program

Two to three days a week, the girls and I head over to the 145th street pool which I conveniently located directly across the street from our house. It is a lovely, clean, beautifully-maintained pool with a great sprinkler and fountain park.

It also has free lunch.

NYC has a summer free lunch program and every kid in the city is eligible to have a free bag lunch. If you go to the pool around noon, the staff hands out these white bags and the kids hang out by the pool on their towels and eat them. At first, I resisted free lunches since we are not the intended recipients, but there are lots of lunches at the pool and if they don't get eaten they get thrown out, so my kids hop in line.

Well, honestly, you'd think Wolfgang Puck himself was handing out gourmet lunches. My kids LURVE free lunch.

There is something exciting and amazing to them when someone hands them the waxy white bags, the way they are kept in this dark freezer pack and they take the bag to their towels and curl back the paper to see what's inside. It's like opening a Xmas present. All expectation and excitement.

There is always chocolate milk. Always. And this is exciting enough. But there is also a sandwich, usually peanut butter and jelly on wheat or ham and American in a tortilla. They are thin, paltry sandwiches, often without adornment or condiments. There is an over-whelming amount of white in the lunches. But still, they are sandwiches and sandwiches are, oddly enough, exotic to my kids.

We just don't make a lot of sandwiches around here. When David and I first started dating we would lay around the house after making love and leisurely make thick hot sandwiches of Gruyere and ham and local tomatoes and arugula with some special sauce we concocted together in our post-love making haze, naked in the kitchen. We were sandwich whores. There wasn't a sandwich we didn't make and inhale.

Then, we each gained 10 pounds and we decided those sandwiches were the culprit. We never went back. Sandwiches have all but been psychically banned from our thinking. And I kinda regret it, although my waistline is smaller.

For lunch with the kids, we're either butter-poaching flounder, or making pasta and some kind of home-made but thrown-together sauce or other, or scooping up some homemade soup which I always have stashed in the back of the fridge. But no sandwiches. I think I'm, like, neglecting my kids. They are sandwich-deprived.

Every time we have the bag lunch, I feel a little sad that somehow David and I have pummeled what could be the children's life-long love of good, over-stuffed sandwiches. Or even the sheer joy of a peanut butter and fluff sandwich. Uh. What could be better? The free lunch reminds me that our food choices have altered their preferences. Then, I realize we have shaped their little minds in good ways too and I feel the all-powerful rapture and influence that is parenting. It immediately makes me want to marinate something.

Anyway, back to free lunch...every bag lunch has a side dish, sometimes potato salad, or cold string beans in a weird vinaigrette. These tend to fall flat. I watch all the kids eating. About half eat the potato salad. Weird string beans? Nobody.

Oh, but the carrots? A winner. The lunches often include a small bag of carrots. Nothing special. No dip. Just small carrots in a little individually-sized cellophane bag. Well, you'd think my kids had been given a bag of M&Ms. They tear into the little bag and gobble down the carrots and Edie lifts her face to me and begs, "Buy this, Mommy. Buy this."

Do you think I can get them to eat raw carrots as a snack at home? Rarely. But at the pool? It's like the magical bag lunch from Happy Carrot Land.

Part Two: A Little About The Politics of Bag Lunches

That the kids like this lunch and find it so extraordinary is funny and surprising and also a testament to the fact that they are two and nearly three years old and unaware of the stigma of eating a free or subsidized lunch. They are unaware why there is free lunch and all the politics that come with it. They are not marginalized or made fun of because they are eating free lunch. They realize they are affluent to some degree - and probably feel more affluent than we really are, since there isn't a day that goes by that a new crappy plastic toy isn't clutched in their little fists, but they also are unaware that everyone else is not equally affluent. To them, every kid in the neighborhood can pester his mother for a cheap crappy toy from Duane Reade and get it on command.

To them, every child has what they need. And a new Barbie Princess is as necessary as a lunch. The bag lunch is a novelty to my girls. They know if they don't want what's inside, mama will make them something else when we get home.

The free lunch is not a reminder to me that we are surrounded by hungry kids. I don't need to go to a poor, rural community in Alabama to know that children go hungry. It's happening right here. Right down the street.

Don't believe me? Bring a bag of pistachios, a bunch mandarin oranges and a bucket of chalk to our local playground and watch yourself be surrounded by kids who haven't eaten anything but Cheetos in hours and who are so craving structured play and adult attention that they will hang with you - uncool adult - and you'll find that you are supervising an art project with 20 kids. Add one girl who should be in a photography class because she likes taking pictures so much, has your camera and a party on the playground is born. This doesn't happen on the stuffy, eyes-on-the-sidewalk, keep-your-hands-in-the-car, are-you-trying-to-abduct-my-kid?, Upper West Side.

I know kids that I see everyday at the playground and the pool, know them by names, know details about how their mother's last boyfriend used to hit them hard, and have never, not once, seen the parent. Right down the street.

There is much craving, both for food and positive attention, going on this city. The free bag lunch has made me think a lot about Tom Lee and Ezra Klein's discussion of school lunches ever since they came out in response to Alice Waters Op-ed in the Times a few months back. There has been much talk of meals cooked instead of processed and warmed up, gardens grown in public schools, students learning to harvest, cook and enjoy locally-produced, well-cooked food and meals, food as art, not just craft. I love food and cooking, so I'm all for the dream. Alice Waters' ideas are admirable and amazing and completely miss the immediate needs of this community.

We've got bigger issues to tackle here in Harlem. This is bigger than learning about sustainable foods and how to cook on a hot plate in a classroom.

Let's just make sure the kids aren't hungry first. As Tom Lee has said so practically, let's just feed the kids and make sure they are getting the adequate nutrition their bodies need. Let that be our foundation. That, along with all the uphill forces working on them from society, peer pressure and in their homes - will be enough of a challenge. Or an impossible Sisyphean feat. But then, we can build from there. And that's when we give Alice Waters a call and ask her to bring seeds and organic soil.

As for me, I might decide in the Fall that Lucy's bento box lunches at Central Park East II will not suffice and I might channel Alice waters and try to re-invent their whole food sourcing and cooking issues at the school. I might become the Norma Rae of school lunch. Maybe I'll start growing organic corn on the roof of the school. It's possible. I could go that way...

On the other hand, what I might just do is continue to try to influence my little parcel of the universe. I might just focus on making sure my kids eat well, know good food, know where it comes from, learn the value of experimentation and adventurous eating and see the value of cooking instead of pressing the button on a vending machine.

Just doing that is going to be hard work, with lots of successes and failures. And ultimately, I think that's how you change the world anyway, one kid at a time.



Christine said...

This is a great post Kim. Really and truly. Beautifully said. Good for you for giving some of those kids a little taste of something other than Cheetos and absent supervision. It's such a hard chain to break, all around. I really feel like it comes down to poverty and trying to get people to break that chain and trying to get to them young. In schools.

Cali said...

i adore you for thinking about the bigger picture!

Anonymous said...

You've brought a tear to my eye. Just the compassion you show is enormous. That other part, about the lunch could happen, but if it doesn't, just keep bringing the pistachios and chalk, and being the kind of mum that kids flock to just because she shows them an ounce of love. That's way more important.

ntsc said...

Good post

Beth said...

Fantastic post, it gave me chills. You're a truly beautiful person. Not only are your kids very lucky but the others in the neighborhood you mentioned are as well. I'm sure as the grow up they will remember the fun lady who talked to them and showed them love.

Brande said...


Cheryl Arkison said...

I was all over the place reading this post. Vehemently disagreeing with you about just making sure kids don't go hungry, regardless, laughing at post-sex naked sandwich making, and proud of you for even thinking this way.

But in the last paragraph you said it all. I've always worked on environmental, big picture issues. I've been motivated by this great big desire to save the world. Yup me, I was going to solve all the problems. Then I had kids. And the motivation to change the world was entirely transferred to creating adventurous, independent, compassionate, and fun kids. Instead of changing the world I want to mold kids who will try to do it themselves. And we do it one meal, one art project, one playground adventure at a time.

Krysta said...

i'll email you... i have lots to say.

Rita said...

A wonderfully thought provoking and touching post. I love that you care so much. Mother Theresa once told an interviewer that she would become overwhelmed if she allowed herself to consider the vastness of all the needs, therefore she concentrated on each individual she encountered. You are doing more good than you can probably imagine by showing up at the playground with your oranges, pistachios and chalk; also a great example to your kids. xxRita

famdoz said...

Fantastic post, Kim.

Anne Stesney said...

How lucky for those neighborhood kids to have you living nearby. Sometimes just one kind person can change someone for the better.

Great post. Like you, I tend to lean towards the "feed 'em first" camp. As someone who once tried to feed 100 people on a limited budget, let me tell you, healthy food can sure be expensive. But what do I know?

NCavillones said...

I swear I'm not stalking you, even though I JUST commented on the post before. It's great to discover a new-to-me blogger and I think you're a great writer! I used to work in the public schools, Head Start, and enrichment camps for inner city kids, so I have lots of thoughts about what you've written here but first I need to go and read the Waters' op-ed and Lee and Klein's response. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.